Sierra Leonean-German singer-songwriter, producer, and filmmaker Patrice Bart-Williams performs unplugged for M.Bassy and talks about his life between different countries and cultures and how he preserves his optimism, despite the current political tensions.
Your father’s work as a filmmaker focuses on the relations between Africa and Europe, among others the three-part-series “African Roots” produced for German television. What is the message of these films?
With this series, my father wanted to show the German audience how rich Africa’s culture truly is. I vividly remember the poetic passages, for example on the river Nile. His other films are more about presenting a historically correct image of Africa. In Europe, history often legitimises Western behaviour. Which is not true. Even today, the educational system fails to communicate an image of the African continent that does justice to reality and, hence, a fundamentally wrong conception prevails.
You say, the older you get, the closer you feel connected to your father. How do you notice?
Sometimes, by accident, I find a book and keep saying to myself: you have to read this. When I take a look around the library at our home, I realise: my father has read all of these books already. Also, when it comes to art and artists, whom he has worked with, I realise how ahead of his times he was and how rich the intellectual heritage is, that he has passed on to me. I am growing into it, without trying to imitate him. And then I realize: Wow, we have chosen a similar path.
You have been named after Patrice Lumumba. What is the image you have of him?
They say that his execution was the most momentous in the 20th century. Had history taken a different course, Africa might have been in a different place today. He was one of the world’s greatest minds. His approaches could have sustained Africa’s status towards that of a superpower. Lumumba’s greatest strength was his ability to unite and inspire people – he was too marvellous. This is why they ended him. Those responsible for the act – the CIA in cooperation with Belgium – still talk about his murder in an open and shameless way. The name Patrice carries deep meaning and high hopes. At some point, you realise: it is more than a name. It is inspiration.
Do you rather think of yourself as a world citizen or a cosmopolitical African?
Neither. I don’t know. I don’t have a definition. I think that we don’t yet have a name for the culture, that I am part of, or the identity that I am representing. We are creating this culture right now.
What do you mean when you say: “I mediate not only between styles of music, but also between different worlds such as Europe and Africa.” How do you do this?
For me, the music and culture that I am building for myself, is an object. It is an expression of everything that I am. I have always tried to find the common denominator in everything. May it be an elite school in Salem or a suburb in Cologne. Or Sierra Leone and Germany. Or Africa and Europe. I want to be who I am, without having to pretend. I do not want to play rock music at a rock festival, or reggae at a reggae festival. I want to create music that I can play anywhere. Not because I do not want to provoke, but because I believe that this is the future. And I feel it is something that can be observed more and more in music. I believe music should unite people.
What do you tell your kids about Sierra Leone?
(His son Nile is talking) He tells me that there are a lot of natural resources and that a lot of people go there to dig for diamonds and gold. And he tells me how beautiful it is.
During a TED talk, your sister once describes Sierra Leone as the richest country in the world. What did she mean by that?
I think she literally believes it to be true.
Projections that say that by the year 2050 over 2 billion people will be living on the African continent. Do you believe their living conditions will get better or worse in the future?
That remains to be seen. Some countries give hope, as their economic performance is extremely promising. But Africa needs to invests in itself, in its infrastructure and the resources need to profit those living there. It is a fact that a lot of countries still live off Africa’s natural treasures. For her TED talk in 2015, my sister demonstrated how France would not have gained it’s economic status, if it were not for the high amount of money they annually draw from their former colonies. Besides, Africa would finally have to receive the reparations that have been promised by the European countries.
You often visit the US, do you notice the “Black Lives Matter” movement a lot? What disturbs you more, the growing popularity of the German nationalism through parties like the AFD, or new forms of racism in the United States?
I think the US is developing a new form of nationalism rather than racism. Same as in Germany. The situation in East Germany has always been extreme, but no one talked about it. There were no counteractions because to some extent right-wing tendencies are present in politics and the police system as well. This is not news however. Now, people are using the tensions against the refugees. What these people do not understand is how much different cultures can learn from each other. Especially in the US. Which would not exist in this form. Here in Germany we have seen what happens when a guy like Hitler is in charge. Artists and intellectuals leave and take their creativity with them, to other countries.
You say you are also into filmmaking. What kind film would you like produce right now?
Right now, I am into series. A futuristic series, set in West Africa, that would be awesome.
What line from Chuck D do you still like?
There are plenty! But for example “Fear of a Black Planet” as a whole concept still fits. This approach assumes that the world population is gradually moving towards a darker skin tone. It is obvious, that people still fear this development. I am not afraid. .